Gaining Her Confidence Stride by Stride
Issue   |   Fri, 05/23/2014 - 11:27
Photo courtesy of the Office of Public Affairs
"Although I have seen incredible amounts of growth in Naomi in the past three years, the underlying factor that made all of it possible has been her gain in confidence," said coach Elaine Zizza.

In sports, success is measured by triumphs and defeats, elation and anguish. Throughout her four years at Amherst, Naomi Bates has experienced the entire spectrum of emotion on the track. Quite possibly the most successful track and field athlete in Amherst College women’s track and field history, Bates cites her humble beginnings on the track as a middle school desire to hang out with the boys of a local all-boys school. I think its safe to say that if Bates were to ask her middle school self, high school self or underclassman self how successful she would be on the track, none of them would ever guess that she would become an All-American with multiple program records.

Nevertheless, Bates’ impact on the track extends far beyond her successes on the national stage. When asked to describe Bates’ impact on the program, her coach Elaine Zizza had a difficult time finding adequate words to describe what Bates has meant to the team.

“I feel like I need to preface my answers to your questions by saying how difficult it is to put in words what a great athlete, competitor, teammate and person Naomi is,” Zizza said. “She is an incredibly hardworking, modest, conscientious and smart person. I don’t know if my words can do her justice.”

Baby Steps

Bates was born and raised in Washington, D.C. and attended the prestigious National Cathedral School from fourth through twelfth grade. An avid athlete, Bates competed in a number of different sports including soccer, field hockey and cross country. It wasn’t until Bates reached seventh grade that she decided to try track.

“I was really uncoordinated, so I just wanted to do yoga, but one of my friends convinced me to do track because we practiced with the boys’ school, St. Albans,” Bates said.

However, Bates definitely didn’t learn her form or practice habits from her middle school track days. Her coach from middle school taught her to long jump off of two feet instead of one, and training runs often turned into pancake breaks at friends’ houses. Her middle school track career didn’t lead her to believe that she would ever be a college track and field athlete.

Even for most of high school Bates didn’t think that she would compete collegiately. It wasn’t until the end of her junior year that Bates began to realize that she had a future in track and field beyond high school.

“I really started to triple-jump well, and then I realized that I could compete in college,” Bates said.

Gaining Her Stride

In a fitting fashion, Bates’ recruiting battle was ultimately decided between Amherst and Williams. She had her recruiting visits back to back, and although she really liked the Williams campus and most of the people she met there, she couldn’t see herself there.

When she visited Amherst, she immediately felt at home.

“It was a beautiful day, and all the people I met were really nice,” she said.

Her arrival also signified a shift in the culture in the Amherst women’s track and field teams. With only three sprinters on the team prior to the class of 2014’s arrival, Bates and the other six sprinters in her class changed the entire outlook of the team. Whereas before the women’s team was made up mostly of cross country runners who also ran track, there was now a dedicated group of women who could help the team in shorter distance events.

As the sprinting group got bigger and bigger, the women’s track and field team became a cohesive unit who supported each other through trials and tribulations both on and off the track. Despite two coaching changes, the group continued to grow closer and closer. It was that close-knit support that helped Bates achieve all that she has accomplished throughout her Amherst career.

Yet, the beginning of her career didn’t get off to the start she wanted.

“I wasn’t PRing, and I felt like I was missing out on hanging out with my freshman friends and my friends in my dorm,” Bates said. “To be honest, I wasn’t sure if all the time I was spending at practice and at meets was worth it.”

She had never run indoor track before her first year at Amherst, and she wasn’t used to running around a 200-meter track and competing so early in the calendar year. Like many other college athletes who expect to contribute right away and compete at a higher level than they did in high school, Bates was frustrated by her lack of success during her indoor season. Her low point came at the beginning of her first outdoor season when the combination of the cold weather and uncertainty of her position on the team made her feel lost on the track.

It wasn’t until towards the end of her first outdoor campaign that Bates finally hit her stride and got her confidence back. At the Division III regional championships, Bates beat a personal best for the first time in college, completely changing her outlook on her track and field career. She realized that if she put more effort into training and refocused her priorities, she could achieve all of her goals. It was during that same season when Bates missed qualifying for the national championships by one hundredth of a second — a near miss that provided her with the motivation to train during the off-season to qualify for national championships the next season. That is one of the key attributes that coach Zizza noted as one of the most important factors in Bates’ success.

“Although Naomi was born with talent and great instincts, she was the one that decided to be a champion and extraordinary competitor,” Zizza said. “She decided to show up for practice everyday on time, to warm up properly, to make her lifting sessions, to compete, to refuel, to rest.”

During Bates’s sophomore season her coach sat her down and told her that if she believed in herself, she could accomplish more than she had even imagined. During that indoor season, her distance medley relay team reached nationals and placed one spot short of All-American. But the experience she gained through the trip to nationals gave her the confidence to compete stronger moving forward. After an outdoor season in which she consistently broke her own personal records, she qualified for nationals in the 200-meters.

After breaking through her sophomore year, Bates’ junior year was marred by injury. The week before indoor national championships, she badly hurt her hamstring. In hindsight, she believes that she shouldn’t have competed because she was barely able to run. She wasn’t the same athlete that qualified and it showed during the championship meet. She wasn’t able to utilize the same stride in the long jump or accelerate as quickly as she was accustomed to during the relays. The most discouraging part of the injury was that it carried over into her outdoor season. Although she beat her personal best in the long jump by the end of the season and managed to qualify for the national championships, she didn’t feel mentally ready to compete.

“I just wasn’t used to jumping unhealthy, and didn’t compete as well as I would have liked. It was pretty disappointing,” Bates said.

However, her final year has proved to be her virtuoso performance. This winter, Bates traveled to nationals hoping to stay healthy and compete the way she knew she could. A national championship and two All-American performances validated all the sweat and tears she had shed over the past three seasons. After she surprised herself by garnering All-American honors in both the 60-meter and 200-meter dashes, she won a national championship in the long jump. Going into the long jump, Bates thought she would be an All-American but didn’t think she was capable of winning. She put up the top jump in prelims and held onto her lead. As each of the top women took their final jumps and didn’t beat her mark, she was overcome by emotion. With one required jump left, she saw her teammates and coaches huddled around the pit ecstatically screaming and jumping around waiting to congratulate her.

Her success has continued this outdoor season when she broke program records in the 100 meters and long jump. Complementing her indoor national title in the long jump, Bates also won the outdoor national title in the event. She is also set to compete in the 200-meter dash and the 4x100 meter relay.

As she graduates, Bates leaves a team with almost 15 sprinters, many of whom consider her to be a mentor. Still, Bates didn’t always have the confidence to lead her teammates like she has these past two seasons as captain.

“Although I have seen incredible amounts of growth in Naomi in the past three years, the underlying factor that made all of it possible has been her gain in confidence,” Zizza said. “She has always been very modest, considerate of others, kind and accountable. Over her college career she has also further developed into an incredibly influential leader.”

It is that confidence that her teammates feed off of when they train and compete.

“It’s so inspirational to watch her run fast every single race and constantly break records,” said teammate Victoria Hensley ’16. “Her drive and determination motivates me to run my best every meet and to push myself to new heights. She has always been there to support us with our own goals, and it will be strange not to have her around the track next season.”

Continuing to Lead

As Bates leaves Amherst her presence will be missed, but her impact will be more widely felt as she heads off to teach for Teach for America in Baltimore. Because she attended both Amherst and the National Cathedral School, Bates realized how lucky she was to attend institutions that gave her a great education, which is why she feels like she has a duty to help kids by giving them the same kind of education she received. Although she doesn’t foresee teaching after she finishes her two-year commitment to Teach for America, she is planning on continuing her education in law school.

Whatever Bates decides to do, it is safe to say that she is going to approach it with the same kind of dedication and work ethic that propelled her to be a star on the track at Amherst.